Vaccines

After an initial morning rush, lines sit empty at a Umatilla County Public Health mass COVID-19 vaccination site in Pendleton on April 30, 2021. The county is one of only six that remains in the high risk category according to the state’s latest coronavirus risk level assessment on June 22.

Umatilla County organizations have the opportunity to receive funding if they assist COVID-19 vaccination efforts as part of a new program to drive up the county’s dismal vaccination rates.

The county health department created the “Community Rewards Program,” which the county board of commissioners unanimously approved at its meeting Wednesday, June 2.

The program will work by ZIP code and will be available for not-for-profit organizations, including fraternal, civic and religious organizations, though specific criteria are in development, officials say. The county will be one of the first in the state to make such an effort using incentives, according to Commissioner John Shafer.

When 60% of residents over the age of 18 in a ZIP code are vaccinated, the county will divide $10,000 worth of funds evenly between each organization that has assisted the county’s vaccination efforts, with additional funds based on population.

The ZIP code encompassing the city of Hermiston, for example, has the opportunity to receive $113,000 from the program, Fiumara said. The ZIP code for a town like Helix would receive about $11,000.

Some ZIP codes are nearing that mark, with Helix at approximately 50%, Meacham at 44% and Hermiston at 43%, according to Fiumara.

“We chose (60%) because we wanted something to be reasonably obtainable for the localities in our county,” said Joe Fiumara, the county’s public health director. “Our (vaccine) rates are lower than we would like. Obviously, our goal would be 100%. But we felt that 60% would be a reasonable accommodation that would provide a lot of additional protection within those communities.”

The commissioners agreed to make the program a direct effort to ramp up vaccinations in the county. Commissioner Dan Dorran brought up the idea of setting a target date to reach the 60% mark to expedite vaccinations, saying he “would like to see Umatilla County get as high a level as possible as quickly.”

Only 24.1% of Umatilla County residents are fully immunized against COVID-19, the lowest percentage in Oregon, according to an Oregonian/OregonLive database. The county has consistently reported some of the lowest vaccination rates per capita since February, according to state health data, and officials say demand for shots only has dwindled in recent months.

The funds come from the nearly $510,000 the state sent in May as part of a $25 million effort by the federal government to assist vaccination efforts in a variety of ways, including providing incentives, according to Fiumara.

To receive funds, organizations would need to describe what they have done to assist vaccinations. The county has yet to decide how this will work, but Fiumara said it likely will be a written description.

The county also will use $51,000 to reimburse participating organizations for their efforts and to fund organizations that lack the financial ability to participate. County organizations that receive the funds would be able to use them as they see fit, Fiumara said.

The 60% threshold for the county’s program will have to be met by December. All unused funds will be given to ZIP codes that achieved the 60% mark.

The effort is part of a larger move by state and county officials of incentivizing vaccines to drive up immunization rates. Nationwide, states are offering free baseball tickets, hunting and fishing licenses, free passes to theme parks and transit cards in major cities. Ohio even has weekly lotteries, giving out a $1 million lottery to vaccinated residents each week for five weeks.

Oregon recently announced a program of its own, called “Take Your Shot, Oregon” to encourage Oregonians over the age of 12 to get the shot.

The campaign, a partnership with Oregon Lottery that is funded by Oregon Coronavirus Relief Act, will award $1 million to one vaccinated Oregonian, $10,000 to one vaccinated resident in each of the state’s 36 counties, and $100,000 to five Oregonians as scholarships through the Oregon College Savings Plan.

All Oregonians who have received their first shot of any COVID-19 vaccine are automatically entered to win the prize money. The drawing will occur on June 28 and names will be announced the following week.

Recent experiments by the UCLA COVID-19 Health and Politics Project suggest vaccine incentives have the potential to ramp up immunization rates. More than 7,200 unvaccinated people were asked if they were more likely to get the shot if cash were involved. Roughly one- third said yes.

The county has yet to iron out all the details for its incentive program, officials said, but organizations will likely apply by email or submit a form showing their intent to participate in the program.

The program will run regardless of if the state reaches the benchmark of 70% of all residents vaccinated, the point when nearly all pandemic restrictions will be lifted in Oregon.

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